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First Person To discover the soul of a city, search out its record shops


Chelsea O'Byrne

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When venturing to foreign destinations, most of us do a bit of research prior to departure. We may look for churches, art galleries and museums, Michelin-starred restaurants, designer flagship stores or bakeries with the best croissants.

Don’t get me wrong. My partner and I like those diversions as well. But what we really enjoy is seeking out the music of the terroir. Our journeys for the “character” of music have taken us through Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Lisbon and New York.

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We like to research where the city’s vinyl shops are because we still collect records. We like to feel the vinyl in our hands and pore over the record cover design. And the chances of finding the sensual Argentine tango of Carlos Gardel, the first pressings of Charles Aznavour, the languorous sound of fado or a single of Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks are somewhat limited close to home. Uncovering these treasures at their source city provides a sense of direct provenance for the musical traveller.

In Istanbul, our first outing in the metropolis of nearly 15 million was a graffiti tour. Upon learning that we were Canadian, our tour guide said: “You are so lucky. You have the best postrock music in the world. Have you ever met Godspeed You! Black Emperor?” We were impressed. The Anatolians knew their music groups. We had to dig deeper.

We zeroed in on a shop called Kontra Plak, located in the Beyoglu neighbourhood of Istanbul. The streets were twisty, hilly, very narrow and filled with stray cats. The men drank tea, smoked and played backgammon. Vendors hawked pomegranate juice on the street and bakers dispensed aromatic pide, or Turkish pizzas.

We walked down a few steep steps and found ourselves in the “living room” called Kontra Plak. It struck me as one of those record shops that eschews the mainstream. It was here that we were given a history of Turkish psychedelic rock – beginning with musician Cem Karaca. When the shop owner realized we had no idea who Karaca was, he put on one of his records. In the 1970s, he told us, Karaca was accused of treason and attempting to foment revolution. Fearing for his safety, Karaca left for Germany in 1979. During his time outside the country, his music was not played on the radio and was destroyed. He was stripped of his citizenship. He did not return until 1987 when he was granted amnesty. As the shop owner spoke, we could her the anger and emotion in Karaca’s voice.

When we returned to the shop a couple days later, the owner, sensing our keen interest, offered up a visit to a friend of a friend who owned a vinyl pressing plant. “You don’t have to buy anything,” he told us, “you can just look.” It’s hard not to love the mercantile spirit of the Turks.

Another trip took us to Lisbon and the winding streets of Alfama. This is the oldest neighbourhood in Lisbon and is the birthplace of fado. Fado is the expression of saudade, a sense of melancholy, a sense of longing or hoping for the past in the present. Many say the word is impossible to translate. It may have originated when Portuguese sailors went off to sea and their families never knew if they would return. As we wandered the cobblestone lanes, we heard these compelling sounds gently wafting out of the cafés. The music drew us inside, we’d order a glass of vino verde and be immediately transported by this sense of yearning.

Knowing that we needed to learn more, we headed to the Sunday morning flea market at Feira da Ladra. Searching through the myriad vendors we found our coveted quest on vinyl: the queen of fado, Amalia Rodrigues. Returning home with three of her albums, we are starting to learn saudade.

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It was the electricity and sensuality of tango music that would draw us to Buenos Aires. We entered hallowed tango halls such as Salon Canning where all the young, female dancers were paired with slightly more “mature” partners. The woman wanted men who knew how to dance, not the young bucks.

We learned that the history of tango is rooted in the bordellos of La Boca, the somewhat steamy neighbourhood of Buenos Aires once frequented by those living on the margins. Our music education continued as we listened to the classic practitioners of tango, such as Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzola. Tango, we discovered, has been re-embraced by a much younger generation. Our record collection now includes electro-tango musician Federico Aubele and bands such as Bajofondo and Gotan Project. Although we could never replicate the grace of the dancers at the milongas of Argentina, we do like to spin this music at home and dance our own interpretation. It is easy to feel the obsession when the body starts moving.

Our final vinyl destination was closer to home: New York. We had watched the Netflix series The Get Down, which traces the transition from disco to hip hop and rap in New York. We were eager to seek out and add a few key albums to our stacks.

Our first stop was A1 Records in the East Village, rated one of the top 50 record shops in the world. While not the biggest in New York, it is certainly the most carefully curated for hip hop. When you want to delve into hip hop, rap, disco, funk and soul you go immediately to A1. The store is jammed with vinyl. They know their stuff. This is where we found the albums of Grandmaster Flash, the Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow.

Our musical odyssey has taken us far and wide over the past decade and widened our musical appreciation. We’ve met passionate DJs, record-store owners and dance artists who have enlightened and enthralled us. We’ve learned more about politics, more about history, more about class struggles and – like travel always manages to do – more about ourselves.

Sure, we love discovering bakeries and galleries, but music nourishes the soul.

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Tom Lawson and Sheila Casey live in Ottawa.

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